The first thing to learn before you start cooking Japanese food at home is how to wash and cook Japanese rice properly. Click here to see my post on washing and cooking Japanese rice.
To understand the importance of rice in the Japanese diet you only need to look at the word ‘gohan’, which means both meal and rice. A typical Japanese home-cooked meal always includes a bowl of rice accompanied by soup and several other communal dishes, including vegetables, fish and meat, to give a nutritionally balanced meal.
I lived in a rural village called Nishiyama on the western coast of Japan for two years. It was surrounded by endless rice fields and mountains. There I got to truly experience the importance of rice in Japanese society. I remember one neighbour who warmly welcomed me to Nishiyama village with gifts of his own harvested rice and seasonal vegetables. I became good friends with him and his wife, and learned so much from them about Japanese food and culture. One day they brought me along to their rice field to watch their son plant rice seeds. After witnessing the hard work involved in planting, cultivating and harvesting rice, I gained a deeper appreciation for this sacred grain.
At home I prefer to serve rice in small Japanese-style bowls rather than on plates, as it’s easier to control portion sizes this way. The concept of communal eating and the use of chopsticks during eating also help control the amount of food eaten during a Japanese meal, without people having to make a conscious effort to do so.
Kombu & Shiitake Dashi (Kelp & Shiitake stock/broth)
Makes 1 litre
1 litre water
20g dried kombu (kelp) – a piece about the size of a postcard
3 dried shiitake mushrooms
1 Put 1 litre of cold water in a large saucepan.
2 Add the kombu and shiitake mushrooms to the water and leave to soak for at least 30 minutes. If you have time leave to soak for a few hours or overnight (in this case, place in the fridge). This will fill the water with the goodness and umami from both the seaweed and the mushrooms.
3 Heat the water until it comes to the boil and then remove the kombu and mushrooms immediately.
4 This can be stored in the fridge for about 3 days, or you can freeze it.
Tip This is an ideal dashi for vegetarians.
Dashi is a type of cooking stock used as a base for soups and other dishes in Japanese cuisine. It is surprisingly easy to make compared to stocks here in the West. The secret to a good Japanese stock/broth is to use ingredients filled with umami – ‘the fifth taste’.
Traditionally, dried fish flakes called ‘katsuobushi’ and kelp seaweed are the basis for Japanese stock. Since katsuobushi is quite difficult to get outside Japan and expensive to buy, I tend to use kelp seaweed only or a mix of kelp seaweed and shiitake mushrooms, as these raw ingredients are also filled with umami and are widely available. We have an abundance of kelp seaweed here in Ireland, which can be bought in health stores, large supermarkets and fishmongers, so Ireland really is the ideal place to make dashi!
Dashi no moto: instant stock
Instant stock (also called instant dashi) is a dry ingredient that comes in granules and can be used to replace home-made dashi. Using instant dashi in Japanese cooking is similar to using stock cubes for cooking here in the West. Outside Japan it can be difficult to source so, depending on where you live, it may be easier to make home-made dashi. The most popular type of instant dashi granules available is called ‘hon-dashi’, made by a company called Ajinomoto. To use instant dashi granules for any of the miso soup recipe add 1 teaspoon of instant dashi granules to 1 litre of water. I recommend making dashi from scratch if possible, as nothing compares to the depth of flavour in home-made dashi and you also have the comfort of knowing exactly what’s in the stock. What follows are three recipes for home-made dashi.
Edamame are young soybeans in a pod. I loved this popular snack when I first moved to Japan as a student, as they are really cheap to buy and tasty, and go surprisingly well with beer. Generally, edamame can be found in the frozen section of Asian speciality stores or larger supermarkets. They are sold in the pod and also out of the pod. I prefer using edamame in the pod when serving as a simple snack or finger food and then using edamame out of the pod for when I’m making a dish with them.
To cook frozen pre-cooked edamame, place them in a large bowl and completely cover with boiling water. Leave for a few minutes, then drain. Fresh raw edamame should be cooked in a saucepan of boiling water for about 5 minutes and then drained.
Serve edamame with an empty bowl to dispose of the pods. Remember you can’t eat the pods! Check to see if the edamame have been pre-salted or not and then season to your liking with freshly ground sea salt.
To eat edamame simply pop the beans out of the pod using either your hands or your mouth. To add a nice kick to your cooked edamame sprinkle with shichimi togarashi (Japanese seven spice) or just cayenne pepper.
If I’m completely honest, this recipe came about with a little luck using ingredients I had at home to make a last-minute lunch. Generally dumplings would be added to this type of noodle dish, but the meatballs work really well. The light soy broth works well in month summer and winter months.
4 bundles or portions of udon noodles
1 spring onion to garnish
shichimi togarashi and/or chilli oil to garnish
For the broth
1 litre chicken stock
4 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons sake
salt and pepper to season
For the meatballs
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons sake
salt and pepper to season
250g good quality pork mince
For the toppings
100g pak choi leaves, washed and roughly chopped
1 medium carrot, peeled and cut julienne style
4 eggs, hard-boiled, deshelled and halved
1 Pour the chicken stock into a large saucepan, bring to the boil and then reduce to a simmer. Add the soy sauce and sake, and season. Mix well and reduce to a very low simmer.
2 Meanwhile, for the meatballs, in a large bowl, mix the soy sauce, sake, egg, salt and pepper together. Then add the panko and pork mince. Using your hands mix well together.
3 To make the meatballs, measure out a heaped teaspoon of minced pork mix. Then, using dampened hands, roll into the shape of a small meatball. This should make about twenty-five meatballs, depending on the size.
4 Heat some oil in a heavy-based pan on a medium heat. Place the meatballs into the hot pan and cook, turning every few minutes until they are browned on all sides.
5 Cook the udon noodles according to the pack instructions. Then toss into the broth, bring back to the boil and then immediately reduce to a simmer again.
6 Divide the udon noodles and broth between four bowls, and add the meatballs, raw vegetables and eggs if using.
7 Finally garnish with finely sliced spring onion and shichimi togarashi or chilli oil.
This is so easy to make, uses very few ingredients and is filled with flavour.
4 cloves of garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
cooked Japanese white rice (1 rice-cooker-measured cup of uncooked rice, 160g)
soy sauce to season
sesame oil to season
shichimi togarashi (Japanese seven spice) to serve
1 In a non-stick frying pan heat a generous amount of vegetable oil over a medium to high heat and add the garlic.
2 Fry the garlic until slightly browned and crispy, then remove from the pan, place on a small plate and set aside.
3 Add the cooked rice to the garlic-infused oil still sitting in the base of the frying pan and fry until the rice is evenly covered in the oil and hot. Add the garlic.
4 Drizzle a small amount of soy sauce and sesame oil over the rice and mix well. Take off the heat and divide between two plates.
5 Using the same frying pan, add more oil if necessary and put over a medium to high heat.
6 Crack the eggs into the frying pan and cook to your liking (preferably leave the egg yolk runny).
7 Place one fried egg on each plate on top of the rice. 8 Sprinkle shichimi togarashi over the egg and rice to